Section: Arts

Review: Talented writing and acting shine in Focus Juice

Focus Juice, written and directed by Isla Hamblett ’24, was one of two student-written plays that wrapped up the drama majors’ senior thesis projects this past weekend, and with them, the Department of Drama’s spring season. Hamblett’s staged reading, held in the Hill Theater, kept alive a powerfully comic nature even while tackling stressors and anxieties that Kenyon students are intimately familiar with.

The play opens with the main characters, Darcy and Asa, played by Ella Demak ’25 and Hayden Ashworth ’27, going through a typical workday as assistants at a company that does research studies for other companies. Specifically, they recruit and interview focus groups. Asa and Darcy are doing focus testing for a dental hygiene company, and the seeds are already sown for what will develop over the rest of the play. Darcy has an altruistic and idealistic streak that often goes against the directives of her job, preferring to work on the personal issues of members of the focus group instead of ferreting out the most lucrative information. Asa, meanwhile, is a neurotic programmer struggling to meet his family’s overwhelmingly high expectations.

The opening scene is mostly expository, setting up Darcy and Asa’s workspace and its routines. The audience also meets their boss, a booming presence named Pat, played by Hank Thomas ’24, and the teenagers in the focus group, played by Finn McWhirter ’26, Stefanie Durcan ’24 and Simone Martel ’27. The audience was also introduced to one of Hamblett’s biggest strengths: character writing. Martel, for instance, plays an endearingly off-putting highschooler whose responses to the questions of the focus group mark her as observant, confused, relatable and strange all at once, and above all else, Hamblett ensures that her character remains funny. 

Another role who shows off Hamblett’s character writing effortlessly is Zane Keith, who McWhirter plays for the rest of the show. An entrepreneur with the mission of combating over-caffeination, Zane has developed a mushroom-based coffee alternative called “Dirt Nectar.” Hamblett peppers Zane’s dialogue with turns of phrase that tell you everything you need to know about him — like how he almost never refers to women by their names, instead preferring “Chica” or “Momma”— and his character was elevated even further by McWhirter’s dedication to a hilariously obnoxious Californian accent.

What the Hill Theater saw was the result of a long process of experimentation. Ashworth wrote in an email to the Collegian: “Every rehearsal ended up being this big reveal, because I’d always be asking myself how the other characters would be different, what new moments would get created.” A great example is Thomas’ Pat, a stereotypical ‘business bro’ out of touch with the youth. Some of his best moments, though, are in his physicality. Ashworth remembers “meeting [Thomas] for the first time in rehearsal and hearing his iconic ‘belly laugh’ for the first time – it took … like, five minutes to stop my own laughter.” Thomas’ physicality brought life to the conventionally sedentary nature of the staged reading.

Of course, the other actors still had their own opportunities to let their humor shine. Demak’s Darcy, for instance, can be eccentric on the job, but her interactions with Zane where she picks up the mantle of ‘straight man’ in their comedic duo match the humor of the scene without sacrificing her intelligence. And despite the humor, the audience still appreciated Darcy’s frustration at Zane’s misogyny every time he spoke over or ignored her. 

Zane is Asa’s future brother-in-law, and Darcy and Asa approach him to ask if his company would be interested in doing focus group testing with theirs. Zane is on board so long as he gets to pick who is in the focus group. It’s a breach of company policy, but if this whole thing goes well, Darcy and Asa could get a promotion that Asa seriously needs, so the two go along with it. What’s the worst that could happen?

In the next scene, Durcan and Martel return as Asa’s sister Lila — who Zane is dating —  and Zane’s secretary Daphne. Noticing the obvious conflict of interest and low number of participants, Pat announces that Asa will need to join the focus group too, leaving Darcy as the moderator. Darcy starts asking Asa, Lila and Daphne questions about work/life balance, over-caffeination and stress, while Zane and Pat watch from behind a one-way mirror. The one-off quips that Zane and Pat have in conversation with each other and in reaction to the proceedings are some of the funniest in the play, but something even more important is brewing as Darcy’s questions lead Asa to confront the unrealistic expectations he has of himself.

Although Pat desperately tries to keep the focus group session on track, it quickly dissolves into unsalvageable chaos. Asa reveals Lila is abusing Adderall to get through work, which leads Zane to break up with her, and Lila discovers that Zane is cheating on her with Daphne. But the most important revelations are Asa’s own: He realizes that the high expectations of his family have left him with unhealthy levels of stress and that the lifestyle changes he’s made in order to appease them aren’t making him any happier. Ignoring pressure from his family and job, Asa grins at the audience and declares, “My favorite thing about Dirt Nectar is how it doesn’t work.”

Needless to say,  Darcy and Asa don’t get promoted. But during a touching epilogue (read by Virginia Morgan ’24, who announced the play’s stage directions), Asa and Darcy have left their job and are trying to get workers at a local museum to unionize. They’re not successful, but they’re enjoying themselves. And the message that you can be happy without success hopefully spoke to many in the audience. 

Despite meditating on the importance of not succeeding, Hamblett’s script and direction of her actors was a runaway success: incredibly funny, prescient and touching. If only everyone knew a Darcy to keep them grounded in what’s really important.

Hayden Ashwood ’27 is a staff writer for the Collegian.

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